What is Religion?


Religion is a class of social practices that people have come to regard as sacred and worthy of respect. It is a very wide and diverse set of practices, and scholars have sorted it into various categories. The term religion is not well defined; for example, some scholars use the word to refer to a belief in a disembodied spirit or cosmological order that will give meaning and purpose to life after death. Others prefer to define religion functionally, as the set of activities that unite people into a moral community. The anthropologists of the nineteenth century had a great deal of success with the latter approach, and in the twentieth century, the field of Religious Studies was put on a scientific basis (the subject was called Religionswissenschaft in Germany).

A number of scholars have attempted to use comparative methods to sort out the different types of religious activities. This is often done using a social taxonomy, based on what Ninian Smart has called the three “Cs”: compulsion, commitment, and communion.

This taxonomic approach raises philosophical issues. Some critics have gone as far as to assert that there is no such thing as religion; they argue that the semantic expansion of the term went hand in hand with European colonialism, and that we should stop treating it as if it has an essence. Other critics have gone a step further, and argue that it is unfair to judge the validity of religious beliefs; there are many benefits associated with religiosity, including increased happiness, greater interpersonal connection, improved health, and enhanced coping skills.

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